The Bridget

Number 5 Published by Chris Tover May 12, 2005

The Bridget is an e-journal of opinion. Mine!
And I am not afraid of controversy.

Featured essay:

A Critique of the NIV Study Bible

The value of a study Bible

If you are truly interested in Bible study, the purchase of a study Bible is a worthwhile investment. You may wonder, what is the value of a study Bible? The Bible contains many are many names and terms that were well known to ancient readers, but need to be explained to the reader of today. I suppose that many readers can differentiate between four uses of the name 'Israel', referring 1) to Jacob, 2) to all of the descendents of Jacob, 3) to the northern kingdom which became independent after the death of Solomon, and 4) to the modern country of Israel. But how many readers understand terms like 'ephod', 'teraphim', and 'cherubim'? A good study Bible will explain these terms and many more.

A study Bible contains a translation of scripture coupled with a commentary on the text. The reading of the commentary should deepen your understanding of the biblical text.

I use three study Bibles. In addition to the New International Version Study Bible (NIVSB), I have the Harper Collins Study Bible (HCSB), based on the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV) plus the Jewish Study Bible (JSB) based upon the (new) Jewish Publication Society Tanakh (Old Testament) Translation (NJPS). When I want to understand a certain passage, I often consult all three of these study Bibles. When I go to the library, I may consult the Interpreter's Bible and the Jerome Biblical Commentary. Since these last two are expensive, I omit them from this essay.

In this essay, I am going to give my personal, non-scholarly evaluation of my three study Bibles, but concentrate on the NIV Study Bible.

Here is another example of why a study Bible is valuable: Consider Exodus 3:15 where Moses faces God on Mount Sinai. The NIV text reads:
God also said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, 'The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob has sent me to you.'
The note for this verse in the NIV Study Bible reads:
The LORD. The Hebrew for this name is Yahweh, often incorrectly spelled 'Jehovah' ... It means "He is" or "He will be" and is the third person singular of the verb "I will be" …
This may start you on the study of the names and terms used for God. Elohim is translated as God. Yahweh is translated as LORD and Adonai is translated Lord (with small letters). These names of God are key to the modern critical understanding of the scriptures.

Another important benefit is that a study Bible contains cross-references from one passage to another. For example, in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 the crucified Jesus says, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" An average reader might think that Jesus was overcome by despair and fear of death. However, a Jew from 2000 years ago would have a completely different understanding of that cry.

The note of the Harper Collins Study Bible reads: "Jesus' cry, given in transliteration of Aramaic is from Ps. 22.1." When Jesus quotes the first verse of Psalm 22, he reminds his listeners of the entire psalm. The first eighteen verses of this psalm do convey a sense of grave danger and abandonment. Then its mood changes to confidence that God will come to the rescue.

The NIV Bible reduces the need for cross-references in the commentary. Instead, the NIV Bible uses the center column for cross-references. The commentary identifies only the most important cross-references. The cross-references for the cited verses in Matthew and Mark identify Psalm 22.1. The extensive cross-references is one of the strengths of the NIV Bible. Very few verses don't have a cross-reference. Many verses have three or four, sometimes a score of cross-references.

I liked the wealth of maps, tables, charts, and drawings. There is a lot of information about Jewish traditions that is easy to understand. Also a concordance, an index to notes, and an index to subjects provides a useful way of researching many topics.

Ideological Issues

A prospective purchaser should be aware of the ideology behind the NIV Study Bible. The Introduction to the NIV Study Bible states: "Doctrinally, the NIV Study Bible reflects traditional evangelical theology." That is evident. This ideology may be seen by conservatives as a strength. But I see it as a weakness. One manifestation of this weakness is that, all too often, the notes just rehash the text. Other weaknesses are noted below.

Traditionally, conservatives and evangelicals uphold three theories about the Bible:

  1. That the Bible is the word of an omnipotent and omniscient god.
  2. Therefore the Bible is perfect, without blemish or contradiction.
  3. The Torah (the first five books, Genesis through Deuteronomy) was written by Moses under God's supervision.
On points 1 and 2, the preface of the NIV states "… the translators were united in their commitment to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God's Word in written form." On the other hand, the preface, with refreshing candor, states: "Like all translations of the Bible, made as they are by imperfect man, this one undoubtedly falls short of its goals."

While the commentators support Mosaic authorship of the Torah, they do not believe, to their credit, in the extreme idea that Moses wrote every last word of the Torah. For example, the NIV translation of Genesis 36:31 reads: "These were the kings who reigned in Edom before any Israelite king reigned." The NIVSB recognizes the anachronistic nature of the text. The note reads: "before any Israelite king reigned. Appears to presuppose the Israelite monarchy and thus to be a later editorial updating."

The mention of the city of Dan in Genesis 14:14 is another anachronism. The note reads: "This well known city in the north until the days of the judges. (See Jdg 18:29) It was formerly called Laish or Leshem. (See note on Jdg 18:7) Thus the designation here is most likely a later editorial updating."

Up to now I have identified some of the good points of the NIV Study Bible. Now I shall discuss some of its deficiencies.


Deuteronomy 34:1 contains another anachronistic mention of the city of Dan. However, the notes do not mention this fact. To discover this fact, the reader must follow the cross-reference to Genesis 14:14. I recommend that the note on Deuteronomy 34:1 be revised to make note of the anachronism.

More problematic is another anachronism in Genesis 14. Chapter 14 describes a battle that Abraham (then known as Abram) fought against Kedorlaomer. Verse 7 states that Kedorlaomer's forces conquered the territory of the Amalekites. The reference to the Amalekites is anachronistic. Amalek, the progenitor of the Amalekites, was a great, great grandson of Abraham. But at the time of the battle, Abraham did not have any children. The note to verse 7 makes no mention of this anachronism. Furthermore, the cross-references do not lead to Genesis 36:12 which deals with the birth of Amalek. Neither the Concordance nor the Index to Subjects have an entry for Amalek. The Index to Notes does have an entry for Amalek, but it does not mention Genesis 36:12. The problem with this is that a person who reads Genesis 14:7 has no way of getting to Genesis 36:12. Thus the reader may never realize that the mention of Amalekites in Genesis 14:7 is an anachronism. I hope that this is merely a technical problem that will be corrected in the future.


I am troubled by the NIV's evangelical attitude. This leads to significant defects in the both the translation and the commentary. The major defects are:

  1. Harmonization, i.e. convoluted explanations that attempt to resolve conflicts.
  2. A dismissive attitude toward the field of biblical criticism.
  3. A willingness to ignore or conceal evidence that is contrary to its evangelical theology.
  4. Christology, that is the retrofitting of Christian theology into non-Christian literature.
  5. An intolerant attitude toward polytheism.

These are serious charges. And I will substantiate all of them.


When traditionalists are committed to the myth that the Bible is holy or infallible, they have difficulty in accepting the fact that there are many conflicts between different biblical passages. A common response to this problem is harmonization, that is the invention of convoluted explanations that try to bridge the differences. All too often, this leads to a twisted explanations that do violence to the plain meaning of the text.

Compare these two passages from the NIV translation of Genesis 13 where the LORD tells Abraham:
13. … Know for certain that your descendents will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.

16. In the fourth generation your descendents will come back here …
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the time of a generation is forty years. But the NIVSB commentator revises the normal definition:
in the fourth generation. That is, after 400 years (see v. 13). A "generation" was the age of a man when his firstborn son (from a legal standpoint) was born -- in Abram's case 100 years.
I object. The definition of 'generation' should not be based on an extreme example. It should be based on the average or typical case. From Noah's grandson to Abraham, the average generation time was about 32 years.

In effect, the NIVSB commentator relies on a radical redefinition of the word 'generation'. If one can redefine words at will, the one can prove anything, which is to say, nothing at all.

More likely verse 16 refers to four generations of Jacob, namely Levi, Kohath, Amram, and Moses. This makes far better sense than redefining 'generation' to mean 100 years.

More often, the NIV and the NIVSB simply ignore conflicts in the text.

Biblical Criticism

Now I shall discuss the negative attitude of the NIVSB commentators toward the field of biblical criticism. (See the "Note on the Documentary Hypothesis," below.) The main branch of the field of biblical criticism is known as 'source criticism'. The objective of 'source critics' is to a) reconstruct the original written texts of the Bible, and b) to account for evolution of these texts into the form that we now have. Over the past three centuries, source critics have built a theory and a large body of supporting evidence. About a century ago Julius Wellhausen set forth the classic theoretical formulation known as the Documentary Hypothesis. For an exposition of this theory see the book "Who Wrote the Bible?" by Richard Elliott Friedman. I have found nothing in the notes of the NIVSB that reflects the work of critical scholarship. (For that matter, neither does the HCSB.) There are only brief mentions in the introductions to Genesis and Exodus and Numbers.

The paragraph from the introduction to Genesis reads:

In the past three centuries many interpreters have claimed to find in the Pentateuch four underlying sources. The presumed documents, allegedly dating from the tenth to the fifth centuries B.C., are called J (for Jahweh/Yahweh, the personal OT name for God), E (for Elohim, a generic name for God), D (for Deuteronomic), and P (for Priestly). Each of these documents is claimed to have its own characteristics and its own theology, which often contradicts that of the other documents. The Pentateuch is thus depicted as a patchwork of stories, poems and laws. However this view is not supported by conclusive evidence, and intensive archeological and literary research has tended to undercut many of the arguments used to challenge Mosaic authorship.

Notice here the use of pejorative words, namely 'claimed', 'presumed' and 'allegedly'. These words demonstrate much about the attitudes of the evangelical commentators of the NIVSB. They are used to avoid a forthright discussion of the issues. What 'conclusive evidence' is desired? The evidence is right under your noses, in the Bible. All you have to do is look for it.

Evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis

One body of evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis is vocabulary; the use of Yahweh vs. Elohim, Mt. Horeb vs. Mt. Sinai, tabernacle vs. tent of meeting, Reuel vs. Jethro, etc.

Another body of evidence is the many anachronisms in the OT. I have mentioned only a few of them. A third body of evidence is the many contradictions that appear.

What standard of evidence is required to prove the validity of the Documentary Hypothesis? If the appropriate standard is 'preponderance of evidence, the standard used in civil courts, then
I submit that the case for the Documentary Hypothesis is overwhelming.

If the appropriate standard is 'beyond a reasonable doubt', the standard used in criminal trials, then the basic structure of the Documentary Hypothesis, as outlined in the NIV preface, has been proved. However, critical scholars differ on many minor issues. Thus there is room for reasonable doubt on some issues. But what is the "intensive archeological and literary research" that the commentator (above) refers to? This assertion is totally unsubstantiated. What research could possibly overthrow the entire Documentary Hypothesis? I do not believe that there is any.

If the standard of proof is absolute certainty, then nothing can be proved, not even the laws of physics.

And what about the theory that the Bible is the 'infallible' word of God? What is the evidence? A conclusion this sweeping ought to be the result of a careful and thorough investigation. After all, a court will never accept a witness as infallible. Yet the evangelical commentators accept the infallibility of the Bible without any evidence whatsoever. It is a matter of faith. And any investigation that relies on unproven assumptions is bogus. That would be like asking Al Capone to investigate crime in Chicago.

I submit that a fair trial requires an impartial jury. But these evangelicals have their minds made up before the trial begins. (Do not confuse me with the facts.) They refuse to examine the evidence in an impartial manner. "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead." [Luke 16:31 NIV]

Evidence Ignored

Let us consider a few of the contradictions in the Old Testament. Genesis contains two creation accounts, 1) creation of the heavens and the earth [Gen. 1-2:3], and 2) the story of Adam and Eve [Gen. 2:4-2:24] Let's ask the question, on which day was Adam created? According to Genesis 2:4-5 (NIV) Adam was created "When the LORD God made the earth and heavens -- and no shrub had yet appeared on the earth …" These conditions, dry land and no vegetation, occurred between verses 10 and 11 of chapter 1. In other words, Adam was created in the middle of the third day. Furthermore, the order of creation in the two stories is different. In the first story the order is: plants, animals, people. In the Adam and Eve story the order is: man, plants, animals, woman. The NIVSB does not, in any way, acknowledge these discrepancies.

To be fair, I note that the HCSB does not mention these conflicts in its notes. However, the HCSB has the virtue of giving a fair-minded account of the Documentary Hypothesis in the main Introduction and the introduction to Genesis. The JSB note on Genesis 2:4-25, while not mentioning the discrepancies explicitly, does say: "Source critics attribute the two accounts to different documents (P and J, respectively) later combined into the Torah we now have."

Another discrepancy occurs in the story of Noah. Genesis 6:19 (NIV) states that God (Elohim) commanded Noah to: "bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you." On the other hand, in verse 7:2 the LORD (Yahweh) tells Noah, "Take with you seven (NRSV and JSP both read: seven pairs) of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate."

Again, the NIVSB makes no mention of this discrepancy between two pairs vs. seven pairs of animals. The HCSB, without explicitly mentioning this conflict, does cross reference the two verses in the notes. The JBS note for Gen 6:19-20 states:
This contradicts 7.2 in which the LORD instructs Noah to take seven pairs of the clean animals and two of the unclean … Critical scholars explain the contradiction by attributing 6:19-20 to the Priestly source (P) but 7.2 to the J. Only the latter reports Noah's sacrifice when he emerges from the ark (8:20-21).
A three-way conflict exists in the laws of sacrifice. Leviticus 17:3-4 says that whoever slaughters an ox, a goat, or a sheep must bring it to the entrance of the Tabernacle as an offering. This conflicts with Exodus 20:21 which says that sacrifices may be performed in many different places. Furthermore, Deuteronomy 12:20-21 conflicts with both of the other two laws. It says that the law Exodus 20:21 is valid for only a temporary period of time. Exodus 20:21 has no time limit. Deuteronomy 20:21 also says that the law of Leviticus 17:7 does not apply until some future date. Leviticus 17:7 says that this law is "a law for all time, throughout the ages." (NJPS) The NIVSB ignores this issue.

Another problem with the NIV is the lack of cross-references in cases where this might cast doubt on the infallibility of God's word. Consider Genesis 20:5 (NIV) which reads:
I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God punishing the children for the sins of their fathers to the third and fourth generation.
The HCSB note to this verse says, "… that God punishes vicariously is denied by Jer 31:29-30; Ezek 18." The very extensive JSB note to this verse says, "For further, outright rejection of transgenerational retribution see, Deut. 24:16; Jer. 31-29-30; Ezek. 18:1-20." The cited verses from Jeremiah state:
29. In those people will no longer say, The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge. 30. Instead everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes -- his own teeth will be set on edge." (NIV)
Neither the cross-references in the NIV translation nor the NIVSB commentary on verse Ex. 20:5 references the three verses cited by the JSB. But the NIV cross-references and NIVSB commentary on these three verses do have mutual cross-references.

Ezekiel 18:4 says, "The soul who sins will be the one who will die." The NIVSB note to this verse provides a very illuminating indication of the evangelical mindset. It reads:
Ezekiel spoke out against a false use the people were making of a doctrine of inherited guilt (perhaps based upon a false understanding of Ex 20:5; 34.7)
I disagree. The plain sense of the passages in Ezekiel and Jeremiah is that they both reject Exodus 20:5 and 34:7. The fact remains is that the NIV omits significant cross-references from Exodus 20:5, and that the NIVSB uses a questionable interpretation of Ezekiel 18:4. This allows the evangelical theologians to pretend that all the writers of the Old Testament are in complete agreement with each other.

Exodus 34 contains an account of the writing of the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets. This version of the Ten Commandments is very different from the commandments in chapter 20. (Exodus never says that the commandments of chapter 20 are THE Ten Commandments.) Both the NIVSB and the HCSB ignore this glaring discrepancy concerning one of the foundational events of Jewish tradition. The JSB note to Exodus 34:28 says:
Their identification as the Decalogue -- which God was to write on the tablets -- is puzzling. The present text appears to combine two different traditions about what the terms of the covenant were.
I am pleased that the JSB discusses this issue, and disappointed that the HCSB and NIVSB do not.

These are just a few of the many discrepancies in the Torah. While the NIVSB commentators belittle the explanations offered by critical scholars, they offer no reasonable explanation of the many difficulties in the biblical texts. This is evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis that the NIVSB simply ignores. By ignoring evidence, the evangelical commentators can preserve the illusion of biblical infallibility.

Evidence Concealed

Now I come to the most serious charge, that the NIV translation conceals evidence relating to the question of Mosaic authorship. I refer to the first verse of Deuteronomy. But first I must set the scene. Deuteronomy purports to record speeches that Moses made just before he died. At this time Moses and the Israelites were encamped on the east side of the Jordan river. The first verse of Deuteronomy reads:

NIV: These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel … east of the Jordan …

Compare this to three other versions:

KJV: These be the words which Moses spake unto all Israel on this side Jordan…
NRSV: These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan …
NJPS: These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan…

Which of these is a correct translation of the Hebrew text? Both the NRSV and the JPS give valid translations of the Hebrew text. The King James Version gives a flat-out mistranslation. Finally, the NIV rendering is correct from geographical perspective, but it is still a mistranslation of the Hebrew text. It conceals important information that goes to the question of Mosaic authorship.

What is the significance of this verse? The phrase 'beyond the Jordan' places the writer on the west side of the Jordan, in the promised land, a place that Moses never reached. Thus the author of the introductory verses 1-5 was not Moses. This fact cannot be deduced from the NIV translation.

I note that the Preface to the NIV says, "The first concern of the translators has been accuracy of the translation and its fidelity to the thought of the biblical writes." I am disappointed hat this standard has not been met by the NIV translation.


Christology is the retrofitting of Christian doctrine into Jewish and other non-Christian literature. It is a tendency that must be guarded against because it may lead to a distorted understanding of non-Christian literature. It is legitimate to identify parallels between say, the life of Moses and the life of Jesus. It is another thing entirely to say that certain things in the Old Testament constitute a prophecy of Jesus Christ, especially when such prophecy would be unacceptable to Jewish tradition.

To a biblical Jew, the idea of a god begetting a child with a human woman was revolting, sinful and dangerous. That was the sort of thing that the despised pagans believed in. There are many accounts in Greek and Roman mythology of gods begetting children with mortal women. Zeus was famous for his manifold seductions of virgins and for the multitude of children so begotten. The Roman emperors claimed descent from the gods. Those were the sins that provoked an angry god to drown the earth in the great flood that nearly destroyed the human race. To a biblical Jew, the idea of the THEIR god having intercourse with a nice Jewish girl would be considered both ludicrous and blasphemous.

I believe that Isaiah would have been shocked by the way that verse 7:14 has been ripped out of context.. When Matthew in 1:23 says, "A virgin will be with child…" he is quoting a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14 that appears in the Septuagint (Greek) translation. The Hebrew word (almah) used by Isaiah means young woman of marriageable age. She may be married or unmarried. She may or may not be a virgin.

It seems reasonable to translate Matthew 1:23 as the NIV does, "The virgin will be with child …" Even a quotation of a mistranslation should translated accurately. But to use this language in the translation of Isaiah is incorrect. The NIV preserves the traditional Christian mistranslation of Isaiah. This is an example of Christology, the insertion of Christian doctrine into the Old Testament.

I note that the both the NRSV and the NJPS translations say "… the young woman is with child …" Notice the use of the present tense.

To understand this passage from Isaiah, one must examine the its context. This was not a prophecy an event in the distant future. Chapter 7 tells us that Isaiah was offering a sign from God to King Ahaz in the midst of a severe national crisis. Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel had united against Judah. Ahaz was about to make an alliance with the Assyrian king, Tiglathpileser. Isaiah offered this sign in an effort to persuade Ahaz to give up his sinful ways, to trust the Lord, and to forego an alliance with Tiglathpileser. The sign had to be manifested in the immediate future. A sign delayed would have been useless. In any case, Isaiah's sign was in vain. Ahaz went on to make a disastrous alliance with Tiggathpileser.

The NIV commentary of Isaiah 7:14 does offer a speculative, but unlikely, explanation, "The virgin. May refer to a young woman betrothed to Isaiah." That, at least, puts the fulfillment of the sign in the time of Isaiah and King Ahaz.

However, I disagree with this interpretation. A sign from God to Ahaz has to fulfill two conditions. First, sign from God has to seen as a miracle, beyond human control. Second, to impress Ahaz, the sign must address one of his important concerns. The possibility of Isaiah making a common woman pregnant fails on both counts.

More likely is that this unnamed woman was a member of the royal family, possibly Ahaz's sister or even his queen. Ahaz had sacrificed his first son to a pagan god. [2 Kings 16:2-3] The emotional shock of this killing may have been so devastating that the woman was unable or unwilling to bear another child. The news that this woman was pregnant would have been of great importance to Ahaz. It would have paralleled the prophecy made to Abraham in Genesis 18:10. When a barren woman conceives, the child will be divinely blessed. (Consider the birth stories of Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Samuel. A barren woman becoming pregnant is the direct opposite of a woman who conceives so easily that she does not need any masculine assistance.

This theory fulfills the two conditions listed above. The sign would speak to an important concern of Ahaz. And it would be a miracle totally beyond human control, discounting entirely the possibility that the unnamed woman was secretly allied with Isaiah to whom she communicated news of her pregnancy before she made any announcement to the court and from whom she might have received the name Immanuel. No, that could not possibly be true! Heaven forbid!

The NIV note to Isaiah 7:14 also says, "Mt 1:23 apparently understood the woman mentioned here to be a type (a foreshadowing) of the Virgin Mary." I would like to see the commentary discuss the Septuagint mistranslation at this point, not only here, but in the note to Mt 1:23.

The NIV note the Isaiah 7:14 says, "Immanuel … Jesus was the final fulfillment of this prophecy, for he was 'God with us' in the fullest sense …" This is an example of Christology that is unacceptable to Jewish tradition. (Apparently, some people believe that the Old Testament was not meant for the Jews.)

By contrast, the HCSB commentator understands that the name Immanuel "embodies the divine promise of protection to Jerusalem."

The JSB commentator offers a two-fold meaning: "God is with Judah, both to protect it and to punish it."

I am again disappointed that the NIV has failed to meet its goal of accurate translation.

A second example of christology in the NIVSB occurs in the note to Leviticus 4:3. It says, "All priests sinned except the high priest Jesus Christ." In the first place, such a sweeping statement as "all priests sinned" could unfortunately be seen as anti-Semitic. Second, the idea of Jesus being a high priest is offensive to Jewish tradition. Jewish law is specific on this issue. Priests had to be Levites descended from Aaron through the male line. (That is father, son, grandson, great-grandson, etc.) Since the time of Solomon, high priests had to be descended from Zadok. On the other hand, Christian tradition places Jesus in the House of David, in the tribe of Judah. Therefore Jesus could never be a priest, let alone a high priest. If Jesus had ever claimed to be a priest, his enemies could correctly accuse him of blasphemy. He would have been rejected as a false messiah.

Attitude Toward Polytheism

What irks me about traditional Judaism and Christianity in general is their holier-than-thou attitude toward polytheism. Paganism is regarded as a false type of religion, polytheists are sinners. The Old Testament celebrates the slaughter of pagans. When I went to Sunday School I never heard a favorable word about paganism. So I am not surprised by the demeaning tone of the NIV note to Genesis 15:16:
sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure. Just how sinful many Canaanite practices were is now known from archeological artifacts and their own epic literature discovered at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) on the northern Syrian coast beginning in 1929. Their 'worship' was polytheistic and included idolatry, religious prostitution, divination, and at times even child sacrifice. God was patient in his judgement, even with the wicked Canaanites.
(Let me say, right now, that I do not consider idolatry, so-called 'religious prostitution', or divination as inherently sinful. I do draw the line at child sacrifice. That practice is morally offensive. I also condemn slavery, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and racism.)

The city of Ugarit flourished for about four thousand years. It was destroyed by the Philistines at about the time of Moses. The tablets recovered from Ugarit tells us a lot about the polytheistic Canaanite culture that gave birth to ancient Israel. Many religious ideas from Canaan were ttransformed and recorded in the Old Testament. The Canaanites worshipped the gods Baal, Dagon, and Asherah. These gods are vilified in the Old Testament. The supreme god of Canaan was named El. He was also known as the creator of heaven and earth, father of the gods, father of mankind, and 'Bull El'. (Does that remind you of something? The Golden Calf?) In the Old Testament El is known and worshipped as El Shaddai. The plural form of his name is 'Elohim' which is used throughout the Old Testament to refer to the one god of Israel. This is translated in English as 'God'.

When Abraham entered Canaan he may have visited Ugarit. He may have worshipped in the 'wicked temples' of Baal and Dagon. (He was once a polytheist according to Joshua 24.) When the king/priest Melchizedek blesses Abraham he says, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, creator of heaven and earth." [Gen 14:19 NIV] 'God Most High' is the translation of the Hebrew El Elyon. Melchizedek uses two epithets of El of Ugarit. This indicates that Melchizedek was most likely a priest of El. But I have no reason to conclude that Melchizedek was a monotheist. He probably worshipped Baal and Asherah as secondary gods. For that matter, there is nothing in Genesis that explicitly states that Abraham ever gave up the worship of gods like Baal and Asherah. There is nothing to that effect in any of God's commands to Abraham. Nowhere is it written that Abraham refused to worship the gods of Canaan and Egypt. Any such refusal would have soured his relations with the local kings and the Egyptian pharaoh. Any such refusal would have been gleefully described by the monotheistic editors of the biblical texts.

The influence of Canaanite culture on Israel is manifest in the many El-names in the Old Testament. The worship of El is attested to by the names El Shaddai and El Elyon. There are a multitude of El-names of people and places, such as Eleazer, Elijah, Bethel, Samuel, and most notably Israel. Another crucial Ugaritic connection was that the script of Ugarit gave birth to both the Greek alphabet and the Hebrew aleph-bet. Without that invention, we would not have the Bible.

The biblical writers worshipped the 'father of the gods'. But at the same time they hated his wife and children and thereby turned El into a family abuser. How is that for family values?

There is much polytheistic imagery in the Old Testament. For example, Genesis 1:26 quotes God as saying, "Let US make man in OUR image and likeness." Mainstream Judaism and Christianity understand this to mean that God is addressing a divine council of angels or 'hosts of heaven'. All three study bibles take this view. (At least the NIVSB does not present the christological view that God is talking to Jesus Christ.) This imagery derives from the stories of ancient Ugarit where El presides over a divine council of gods that includes Baal and Dagon. The ancient biblical writers and copyists progressively expurgated and downgraded polytheistic references, demoting the ancient gods to mere angels. For a striking example of this tendency, see the discussion below of Deuteronomy 32:8, 43.

Clearly, the culture of ancient Israel owes much to the polytheistic culture of Canaan. Just as Catholics, Protestants, and Jews of today now respect each other's traditions after centuries of violent conflict. I believe, that as a moral good, that we should respect the ancient traditions that informed our civilization. I hope that our religious leaders will exercise leadership in this direction.

I am pleased that the JSB and HCSB offer factual commentary on the ancient polytheistic traditions. I am disappointed in the harshly negative attitude of the evangelical commentator of the NIVSB. Canaan was the birthplace of patriarchal religion. But all the NIVSB commentator sees in Canaan is sin and wickedness.

Deuling Scrolls

In Deuteronomy 32, Moses sings a song. (Curiously, the song is sung "After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law, from beginning to end." [Deut. 31:24 NIV] (So how and when did Moses write following sections of Deuteronomy?) Verse 8 shows an interesting difference in approaches to translation. The three translations read:

NIV: When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.

NJPS: When the Most High gave nations their homes and set the divisions of man, he fixed the boundaries of peoples in relation to Israel's numbers.

NRSV: When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided mankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods.

The main discrepancy in these translations occurs in the final phrase. The NRSV refers to the number of gods, the others say number of Israelites. What lies behind this discrepancy? Which is the accurate translation? The answer is all three are accurate. The NIV and NJSB are based on the standard Masoretic Text (MT).

The NRSV translation is based upon the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Greek Septuagint. This source is footnoted in the text. The commentary gives a short, but inadequate, explanation of the NRSV translation of the verse.

The JSB discusses this situation candidly in a very extensive note:
in relation to Israel's numbers is unintelligible as it stands. The variant attested by the Septuagint and at Qumran "according to the sons of El" (cf. NRSV) … makes much more sense. Almost certainly the unintelligible reading of the MT represents a "correction" of the original text (whereby God presides over other gods) to make it conform to the standard of pure monotheism. There are no other gods! The polytheistic imagery of the divine council is also deleted at 32.43; 33.2-3,7.
The JSB note gives two versions of Deuteronomy 32:43. One is based on the standard Masoretic text, the other is reconstructed from the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The NIVSB gives no indication of any problem with these verses.

What this points out is that ancient copyists could and did make revisions in the biblical texts. That fact is attested to by the many differences in ancient manuscripts. And all of the manuscripts we have are copies of copies of copies with many layers of editing. Even if Moses did write down some portion of the Torah, it is now impossible to reconstruct this writing with any degree of confidence.


I shall continue to continue to use the NIV Study Bible despite my reservations. It has much useful information. And it does provide an insight into traditional evangelical thought.

The Harper Collins Study Bible is an outstanding reference. But one major improvement would be to include information about the JEPD writers in the notes to the text.

However, my first choice is the Jewish Study Bible. I cite it for its accurate translation of the Masoretic text, for its very extensive and informative notes, for information about traditional Jewish interpretations, and for a comprehensive discussion of modern critical theories,

A Note on the Documentary Hypothesis

The main thesis of the Documentary Hypothesis is that the Torah was formed by combining at least four source documents. Th version of the Documentary Hypothesis presented here was set forth in Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman. The putative writers of these documents are designated in chronological order:

J -- The Yahwist, so-called because he uses the sacred name for God, YHWH. This name is often rendered in English as Yahweh. Probably active in Jerusalem during the reign of King Solomon or his successor. The Book of J reconstructs the Yahwist texts. (The letter J arises from German translations.)

E -- The Elohist, so-called because he writes stories referring to God as Elohim. E was probably a priest of Shiloh in the northern kingdom (Israel). Thus the time of E was after the death of Solomon, but before Israel was conquered by the Assyrians.

JE -- Combination of the J and E texts written after the fall of the northern kingdom.

P -- The Priestly writer. Responsible for first creation story in Genesis 1, the Ten Commandments, genealogies, and most of the laws.

D -- The Deuteronomist. He is credited with the writing of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Jeremiah. Active from the time of King Josiah to the Babylonian exile. My favorite candidate is Jeremiah's scribe, Baruch. In the classic (Wellhausen) formulation of the Documentary Hypothesis, P followed D.

R -- The Redactor who combined the texts into the present form of the Torah. Probably Ezra. He facilitated the return of Jews to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile. He also directed the public reading of a version of the Torah in Jerusalem.

The theory known as Documentary Hypothesis has dominated critical research into the biblical texts for more than a century.

Terms like 'theory', 'hypothesis' and 'criticism' have some negative meanings to many people. I want to clarify these terms.

The term 'hypothesis' means a proposed solution to a problem that the originator believes to be valid, but does not have sufficient proof. Over the past century, scholars and archeologists have built an impressive body of evidence in support of the Documentary Hypothesis, making the continued use of the term 'hypothesis' somewhat archaic.

The term 'theory' has two meanings. One meaning is similar to 'hypothesis'. It also means a systematic exposition of principles, for example, the Theory of Gravity.

The term 'biblical criticism' may give the erroneous idea that a critical scholar is one who disparages and belittles the biblical texts. A critical scholar is more like movie critic who describes both the strengths and weaknesses of a film. A 'source critic' is one who uses all available evidence in order to reconstruct the original biblical texts and to account for the evolution of the texts into the form that we now have. Other critics study the historical context, points of view, and original meanings of the texts.

Copyright Information:
The sources of quotations in this document are:

NIV: Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.
NIVSB: Zondevan NIV Study Bible (fully revised) Copyright © 1985. 1995, 2002 by Zondervan. All rights reserved.
NRSV: These Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. used by permission. All rights reserved.
HCSB: The HarperCollins Study Bible, Copyright © 1993 by HarperCollins Publishers Inc. All rights reserved.
NJPS: Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation, new version copyright 1985, 1999 by the Jewish Publication Society.
JSB: Jewish Study Bible copyright © 2004 by Oxford University Press, Inc.
KJV: King James Version. No copyright information available. I acknowledge the great value of the Theophilis 3.0 free software for reading and searching the King James Version. (

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posted by Chris Tover at Thursday, May 12, 2005 9:54 AM     Comments:

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